The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investigating whether prominent developer John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods violated the federal Clean Water Act by erecting a roughly 18-foot-high retaining wall in the middle of a stream in north Fulton County.
The corps sent Wieland a letter May 5 announcing the probe and asking for information about the developer's work on a 60-acre site near the intersection of Birmingham Highway and Crabapple Road. Wieland did not get a federal permit to erect the wall in a stream, the letter says.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division is investigating whether Wieland violated state law, which requires buffers for streams.
The unnamed stream flows year-round and drains into Copper Sandy Creek, a tributary of the Little River, which empties into the Etowah River and Lake Allatoona, according to the Coosa River Basin Initiative.
Wieland officials say they erected the wall to prevent stream bank erosion and to protect water quality. Last week, water trickled down a stream a short distance from one side of the wall, while murky water pooled between what appeared to be natural stream banks on the other side.
Wieland officials say they relied on Fulton County when it marked the boundaries of the stream and then approved the wall's location in 2006, before the city of Milton broke off from the county and formed around the area. Fulton County spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt said the construction plans the county approved did not show a wall in any wetlands.
Chief Executive John Wieland said his company is applying to the corps for the wall's approval. Wieland officials have voluntarily stopped work on the site, according to the corps, and are cooperating with the investigation and have hired an environmental consultant to answers the corps' questions. "We had a change in development management, and we prepared the request to the corps, but in the changeover it was never mailed," said Wieland, a renowned Atlanta businessman and philanthropist.
Called "Braeburn," Wieland's development is planned to include 45 houses, 49 townhouses and about 53,000 square feet of office space. Neighbors reported the wall to federal authorities, according to the corps.
State environmental officials and the city of Milton are pointing at each other over the matter.
State officials say they are looking to the city of Milton to take action. Bert Langley, manager of the EPD's Mountain District office, said Wieland could be required to take down the wall.
A top city official said Friday he was awaiting word from the state.
Joe Cook, executive director and riverkeeper for the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said his organization is prepared to take legal action, if state and federal authorities don't require Wieland to take down the wall. "They have basically used the stream as a dumping ground for their dirt," Cook said. "It has destroyed that portion of the stream above the wall, and it is creating increased storm water runoff below the wall and causing erosion of the stream on downstream property owners."
Wieland officials deny the wall has damaged any streams and insist they have reduced the rate of water flowing off their site onto neighboring properties.
Last week, Milton's Board of Zoning Appeals granted Wieland a variance to let another retaining wall on the site encroach into a required stream buffer. Wieland applied for the variance after the wall was built. City officials worried requiring Wieland to remove that wall would cause more damage to the stream compared to letting it stand.